Apr 26, 2012

Are "Vices" Good For Us?

I use Twitter fairly extensively, for a variety of different purposes, one of which is to keep my ear to the ground, so to speak, or if you like a different analogy, to see what might come across my virtual desk. Spam or self-promotion aside, most of it is pretty good stuff.  At times, the articles linked to might be rather idiosyncratically, even misleadingly headlined, but in general, they provide a decent picture about what knowledgeable people in a variety of fields, professions, and communities are talking about. Given my own predilection for matters of morality, discussions of virtues and vices, it's no surprise that an article caught my attention: 10 'Vices' That Are Actually Good For You.  I suppose I ought to have known or at least suspected as soon as I saw the MSN Health logo coming up that it would be fairly ill-conceived, poorly-informed, disappointing the hopes the intriguing title raised -- despite what people tend to think, its tough to write well and competently on moral matters without a strong intellectual background and some practical experience in the field of Ethics.

Virtues, Vices, and Ethics

Virtue and Vice are quintessentially moral matters -- precisely why there is an entire family of moral theories broadly associated under the rubric of Virtue Ethics.  Perhaps, if it were not a bit linguistically cumbersome, it might be more informative to speak of Virtue/Vice Ethics, since developing an understanding  adequate enough to help us distinguish between the two -- not as easy a task as would first appear, as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and so many others have shown -- and then to develop the virtues and root out the vices must involve identification and extensive study of both the virtues and the vices.  I was tempted at first to simply dismiss the MSN Health "article" (taking content from Health.com) -- in actuality, another one of those 11-frame slideshows associating a caption and then a short paragraph of explanation with a photo -- but then realized that it does provide a naive, almost "native habitat," look into just how far the term "vice" has been stretched in our culture, becoming unmoored from its older, more complex associations, taking on new, shallower ones.  In its assumptions, its breezy declarations, in the moral language and concepts invoked but clearly not understood, the slideshow provides an occasion for exploring the matters it raises, the advice it exhorts, the distance and slippages between its shallow concept of "vice" and deeper, more traditional, classic notions.

I should mention that the reason why I was so intrigued by the title is that there exists a long and fascinating history of discussions and debates down through the ages about precisely what traits, what patterns of action, emotion, intention, and relationship, constitute virtues or vices.  There have been, to steal and rework Nietzsche's famous by-line not only "transvaluations of values," but also transformations of virtues into vices and vice-versa, hard-earned or gratuitously bestowed deepenings of understanding signaling the significance of newly recognized virtues and vices, translations of those moral matrices from one culture to another, from past epochs into newer, modern situations.

We often think, for instance, of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as originators of Virtue Ethics, as systematically setting out an approach (or approaches, since Plato advances beyond his teacher Socrates, as does his own student Aristotle in turn) unindebted to earlier thought, ideals, and practice -- an easy idea to take hold of, particularly given that it's often taught that way in academic classes, textbooks, encyclopedia entries, and so on.  In reality, they are writing or speaking, arguing, questioning, staking out positions in the midst of a Hellenic culture and society still undergoing significant changes -- political, economic, educational, artistic, and most importantly. . . moral.

They are puzzling out, at the same time as attempting to pursu,e what precisely the virtues are in contrast but also in some continuity with their heroic, Homeric, and Hesiodic inheritance, from which their theories are very marked departures.  They clash with all sorts of opponents, rival reinterpreters of the notions of virtue and vice, some of them raw opportunists, some of them rhetors and sophists, yet others members of rival schools, scions of Socrates, like Antisthenes' proto-Stoic Cynics, or Aristippus' hedonist Cyreneics.

What Are The Key Questions?

If ancient Greek (and by extension, Roman) moral theory involved reconsiderations of virtues and vices -- realizations that some things that appear to be virtues are in reality only vices traveling under those disguises, and in return, defenses of some qualities of character some might assume to be bad, vicious, ignoble as actually good, even virtuous -- it did so most successfully by couching those reexaminations of moral traits in teleological terms, asking fundamental questions like: What is the good for human beings?  What will actually make me happy, fulfilled, being-well, flourishing, free?  How should the goods we desire, and our desires for them, be best ordered?

That is the point of intersection with 10 'Vices' That Are Actually Good For You -- the introduction of what is good for one as the key criterion for determining what deserve to be called virtues and what vices.  So rather than veer off into multiplications of historical instances of radically reworking conceptions of virtue and vice -- as attractive as that prospect is, I'll put that off to further posts -- let's look now closely at what's being said, and what's being assumed in the MSN Health article.

The subtitle reads:  "Many of life’s greatest indulgences bring big health benefits" -- and that tells us exactly what range of goods are being envisioned or assumed as determinative.  Health is indeed a good thing -- good in itself, and good because productive of or necessary for other goods -- but health itself is by no means identical with the good life, with happiness, with moral duty or with virtue.  There is a strong tendency in, though not confined to, our own society towards turning health, particularly physical health (or at least the signs associated with it, e.g. appearance, vigor), into the end, the measure for everything else.  There's also an accompanying tendency towards amorphously extending mental health into encompassing the entire moral domain, typically done rather poorly -- so that the question What is good for me? gets reduced to other, admittedly important, but not as fundamental questions like: What will make me feel good or better?  What will allow me to achieve or maintain an emotional balance?  What will heal, maintain, or improve my relationships? -- even Sigmund Freud's great criteria:  What will allow me to more fully work, love, and play?

The first slide very helpfully sets out the framework of moral concepts assumed:
You can officially stop feeling guilty about those little "bad-for-you" habits you can't seem to break. Turns out, many of life's greatest indulgences bring big health benefits — helping you stay slim, fight off the blues and kick disease to the curb.
Start at the top of the list to get the most bang for your healthy buck, and keep moving on down to learn how to boost your well-being in the most decadent ways possible.
Very revealingly, the "good for you" and "bad for you," the "well-being," are simply matters of physical and mental health. There is a lapse into a moment of forgivable incoherence in framing the "vices" advocated for as merely "little . .  habits you can't seem to break," but also among "life's greatest indulgences."  Notice too the play on the sense of guilt, a moral as well as psychological concept, for engaging in the pleasures about to be enumerated, as well as the liberating permission promised -- if they are really healthy, health-producing, -improving, or -maintaining, then seemingly, while still remaining vices, about which one would expect to feel a sense of guilt or shame, they actually become good for one, even morally.

Healthy "Vices"

What are these permissible, even healthy "vices" then?  The list itself represents some interesting choices:
  • Getting Your ZZZs (i.e. Sleep)
  • Playing Hooky (Leisure, Time Off)
  • Sexual Healing (Sexual Pleasure and Relationship)
  • A Daily Chocolate Fix
  • A Night Out With Friends (Friends and Family)
  • Full-Fat Dressing (Eating Normal Food)
  • Your Morning Java 
  • Getting a Rubdown (Massage and other Touch)
  • Basking in the Sun
  • Wine With Dinner
Isn't it strange that many of these should be considered "vices" in any sense at all?  Granting that one of the moral losses of late modernity has been a progressive deracination and cheapening of of conception of what ought to correspond to the term "vice" -- so that the term gets restricted to actions like using tobacco, drinking alcohol, taking other drugs, frequenting prostitutes, engaging in sexually kinky behavior, eating rich or sumptuous food, excessive or expensive shopping, and the like -- just how far does the word have to be stretched to conceivably apply to "habits" of having sex, sleeping, drinking coffee, spending time with friends, or eating chocolate?

In fact, from just about any Virtue Ethics perspective, a person who regarded those actions, by themselves -- even if they are done habitually -- as actually being vices, would him or herself be a vicious person!  Such a categorical judgement about objects of pleasure, desires for them, indulgence in and enjoyment of them, might well be an instance of what Aristotle calls "insensitivity," a lack of desire for and enjoyment of things that human beings typically find pleasurable.  It might stem from a kind of prudishness, a fussiness that indiscriminately looks down upon pleasures and those who enjoy them, a kind of hatred of the body or the flesh, a pathological orientation towards one's body, its desires, and the objects of those desires. . . .   All sorts of alternative explanations and inferences are possible, but they share one thing in common: such a wholesale negative attitude towards pleasant things represents a mistaken evaluation, and perhaps a viciously distorted conception, of both those things in particular and vice in general.

Temperance as the Central Virtue

Nearly all of these objects of indulgence would be the subject matter for the virtue of temperance or moderation -- the latter a term which the authors keep using though the slideshow! Four have to do with eating and drinking:  drinking coffee and drinking wine, eating chocolate and eating full-fat (i.e. actual, normal, unmodified!) foods.  All of these, in turns out, consumed in moderation, contribute in one way or another to good health.  And, that does accord them a kind of goodness that was in many quarters unrecognized until recently.  More importantly, though, a measured, temperate indulgence in such pleasures of food and drink is part of the good life in the fuller, more comprehensive sense.  Doing so well, habitually, moderately represents at least being in accordance with, or on the way to virtue -- and if a person actually enjoys and desires, not just allows oneself, the right amounts, at the right times, for the right reasons of coffee, wine, chocolate, and actual food, then that person has developed, possesses, and exercises the virtue of temperance.

The same goes for other bodily pleasures and needs such as sleep, having sex, touching, and sunlight.  Enjoyment of any of these cannot be called "vice" without adding some sort of qualifier, like "too much," "at the wrong time," "addictively," "for the wrong reasons," and so on.  These are also matters for the virtue of temperance.   If there is the possibility -- or even probability -- of vice in these objects of desire, it lies in being self-indulgent, unrestrained, "profligate" to use a term of which the old-timey translators were so fond.  Vice resides in going too far with these, not in enjoying sex -- there's typically something amiss with a person who doesn't enjoy and desire sex -- but in seeking it out wherever it can be found, sacrificing other good or important things to that drive, even in being selfish in sex.  Sunbathing, even tanning indoors, can become addictive, and one can certainly go too far with it, damaging not only the skin but the tissues beneath -- but we do need some sunlight, in moderation, for the sake of health and legitimate pleasure.

Leisure time and friendship don't fall under the virtue of temperance or the vices of self-indulgence or insensitivity as do the other eight, but they are also important components of the good life, things we do desire, enjoy the presence or possession of, and feel the lack or deprivation of as well.  They too can be made good or bad use of, and such good or bad uses can become habitual dispositions.  Precisely how to evaluate friendships and relationships more broadly is dealt with by a vast literature of ancient, medieval, and even some later modern Virtue Ethics, so I just mention that, and skip over it.

About leisure, or free time, there's somewhat less discussion, in part, I suspect because there is more of a tendency among Virtue Ethics proponents to look to what one's time gets filled with, to evaluate what goes on in one's time, rather than to look at the matter from a slightly different angle and ask whether one makes good or bad use of one's time, for instance, whether one manages one's time well (and perhaps some leisure time ought not be managed), whether one needs or develops what they call nowadays "work-life balance" -- and even when one ought to "play hooky," take a personal day, refrain from work, indulge oneself in rest or some other non-work, perhaps even non-family-or-friends activity.  On this issue, it seems that the MSN Health listing of "vices" does express something all too endemic to American culture:  a tendency to look at time not already devoted to something else, to work, household maintenance, self-improvement, children, volunteering, as something betokening a vice of laziness.  That deserves additional discussion and analysis, so that provides me an excellent place to end this particular post.

1 comment:

  1. Hahahah! turns out there's already another set of 8 "vices that are good for you" making their way through the Twitterverse on http://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-living-pictures/8-vices-that-are-good-for-you.aspx?xid=tw+weightloss_vices#/slide-10

    Their list: chocolate, alcohol, kissing, sunlight, canned fish, healthy fats, coffee, and carbs -- same basic problems, of course, with their conception of "vice" -- not least that there's no accompanying conception of "virtue"!